Due to a devastating conflict between Seleka factions, anti-Balaka militias, and rebels, violence has significantly increased in the Central African Republic (CAR) since 2013.
With 75% of the country's population under the age of 35, and civilians often targeted amid the hostilities, young people are particularly vulnerable to the conflict. Some of them are even at risk of being recruited into the military, according to Human Rights Watch.
Recently, the closure of schools as a result of COVID-19 has threatened to make matters worse.
That is why a $70,000 grant was awarded to UNICEF's CAR office in March to help the Ministry of Education coordinate its response to the pandemic.
To help tackle the issue, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) has also launched a vocational training program to help young people in the CAR gain skills in trades such as sewing, carpentry, agriculture, and masonry.
Funded by Education Cannot Wait (ECW), the Youth Education Pack (YEP) is a year-long program benefiting some 120 young people in the Kaga Bandoro region — 60% of whom are girls and women. Throughout the duration of the program, students attend literacy and numeracy classes, while also gaining essential life skills.
Students also benefit from vocational and entrepreneurial training that improves their access to economic opportunities, NRC CAR Program Director Safiatu Ayandunkè Alabi told Global Citizen.
Esther, who had to drop out of school at the age of 13 due to the conflict, was able to take advantage of this unique opportunity.
"I had no choice but to stop studying because my parents had no financial means to pay for my education," she told the NRC.
Now 18, the young woman has learned how to sew and is helping her community fight COVID-19 by producing around 50 masks a day.
"I learned that to protect yourself from the virus, you should wear a mask, but I noticed that these masks are not easily found in stores here," she said. "In Bangui [CAR’s capital city], there are tailors who make masks, so I had the idea to make and sell masks at the market here in Kaga Bandoro in order to save lives."
In addition to helping young people, the YEP also ensures community follow-up and helps strengthen the community weakened by high political tensions across the country.
Alabi believes that parents must be involved in this process since they play a "major role" in monitoring and raising awareness among students.
"It is essential to involve partners and communities at different stages to ensure that the program is owned by the community and is sustainable," she said.
Alabi is pleased with the scope of the program, which will continue to expand in the CAR this year, thanks to the ECW funding. The YEP hopes to reach a total of 200 students, including 100 in the Kaga Bandoro (Nana Gribizi) region and 100 in Alindao (Lower Kotto), Alabi said.